Higher education has long been seen as a pillar in American life, as an essential element of our economic system and society. But the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the underlying health conditions of this cultural institution. Many colleges and universities have been struggling to meet the needs of students while also keeping themselves above water financially. While we hope that our lives will return to normal when this crisis is over, it is hard to imagine that higher education will ever be the same.
Universities and colleges have been in hot water for some time now. Since 1980, the price to attend college has nearly doubled, as schools have had to rely more and more heavily on tuition dollars to meet their annual operating costs. Experts on higher education knew the system was in trouble, but if its problems were simply running hot before, the coronavirus has caused the situation to boil over.
Right now, students are participating in an experimental form of online school, created in haste and without the infrastructure that online schooling usually entails. Instead of getting that full college experience, students must attempt to learn over Zoom with professors who are perhaps just as stressed as they are. They may be the best professors in the world, but it’s difficult to justify paying full tuition for an online education. And perhaps students may feel that returning to the literal halls of higher education isn’t worth the price either.
It’s worth noting that the landscape for students had shifted significantly even before the outbreak. “Today, the traditional college experience – 18-to-21-year-olds pursuing fulltime study at a residential college for four years – is the exception rather than the rule,” writes Tom Lindsay of Forbes. Over half the percentage of individuals seeking post-secondary education are non-traditional students, those who are older than 25 and working full time or supporting their families. More and more students are forgoing the usual college experience and schools are struggling to cater to this new, large audience. It begs the question: Has moving online caused even typical students to doubt the necessity of attending a traditional residential college? Will students – and their parents – looking at incoming bills and expenses and feeling the effects of job losses and wage shuttering cause them to seek alternative and less expensive forms of education?
Perhaps you, a college student forced into online learning by coronavirus, balk at the idea that anyone would prefer attending online school versus going to campus. But if even five percent of current college students decide to stick with online education or relocate to less expensive schools closer to home, higher education would be forever impacted. Smaller schools could be forced to shutter their doors forever or be absorbed by larger, more stable institutions. Schools that remained open would face program cuts, layoffs and halted construction projects – at best. Even public schools would be hit hard. And if colleges are barred from opening their campuses in September, the fallout will be even more wide-spread.
Amidst all this information, it can be hard to stay positive about higher education. Incoming freshmen will no doubt be hit the hardest, with the uncertainty about the coming fall weighing heavily on their upcoming decision day. But the institution of higher education is more resilient than we give it credit for. Individual schools may shutter but the pursuit of a college degree will go on. Even after times of crisis in our country when the education landscape shifted immensely, colleges and universities did not all disappear. Students will always want to grow and learn, to improve themselves and their future prospects. And who knows? The immense pressures from the coronavirus pandemic may result in higher education changing for the better for everyone.
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